Nature and Civilisation in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

Term Paper, 2004

21 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. Preface

2. Nature
2.1 Nature And Science
2.2 Themes Of Nature Throughout The Novel
2.3 Victor’s Problem In Understanding Nature

3. Civilization
3.1 Victor’s Creation Becoming Civilized
3.2 A Female Aspect
3.3 Differences Between Victor And His Creation By Their ‘Education’

4. Theories And Opinions On ‘Nature And Civilisation’ Adapted In The Novel
4.1 Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s ‘Noble Savage’ and ‘Emile’
4.2 John Locke’s Theory Of The ‘Blank Sheet’

5. References To The Bible
5.1 The Theme Of Adam and Satan – The Blurred Line Between Monster And Creator
5.2 The Creation Of Eve

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

1. Preface

With Frankenstein, Mary Shelley wrote a novel which is undoubtedly rooted in the time of Romanticism. So it is only self-explanatory that she placed special importance on two of the mostly used themes of that time, nature and civilization.

Civilization has developed itself from nature, but it has also changed nature in the process. Apart from theories of much cited social analysts like Rousseau or John Locke, who will be mentioned later in this paper, one equally well known example is that of man as the hunter: in his natural state, man only hunted to find food, to ensure the survival of himself and his family. In our society, humans do not have to hunt their food by themselves anymore, but nevertheless we don’t seem to have lost our natural instincts, our natural aggressions. One logical consequence therefore is that we direct our aggressions towards each other, that we decimate our own species; the problem is, however, that natural reasons like ensuring the best breed possible don’t exist anymore, that we don’t have explanations why we kill each other apparently at random. Tim Marshall writes about a crime known as ‘The Edinburgh scandal’, which took place in the years of 1828 and 1829. Dr. Robert Knox, an anatomist from Edinburgh and very engaged in the newly upcoming art of dissection, employed two criminals to bring him fresh corpses for his dissections. At this time, grave robbing in order to obtain corpses was a usual occurrence in British graveyards, but in this case the acquired ‘objects’ didn’t come from those who had died naturally, but from people who had been murdered only for the sake of dissection (Marshall, 1 f.). The reason for these murders was science and with it civilization, therefore human nature was misused for the sake of science which in turn needed the bodies to explore the secrets nature still withheld from science.

The resemblance to Mary Shelley’s novel is apparent. But in Frankenstein, nature and civilization are also set in opposition to each other by the attributes they are given: nature as feminine, civilization as masculine. Shelley draws in her novel a parallel between the relationship of man and woman and the relationship between civilization and nature; we will come back to this in a later chapter.

As we have seen in the Edinburgh case already, the situation of civilization and nature is not a one-way relationship. Without the wish to understand the functioning of nature, and the need for knowledge, which is inherent in human nature, the murders would never had happened. Victor Frankenstein confesses that while he was trying to find suitable body parts for his creation, “often did [his] human nature turn with loathing from [his] occupation, whilst, still urged on by an eagerness which perpetually increased, [he] brought [his] work near to a conclusion” (Shelley, 52). So while his “human nature” instinctively urged him to quit his profession, his ambition still keeps him going. But could it not be a reason why human nature can be so easily overcome, even when one employs such an obvious unnatural profession like imitating life, that it is also part of human nature to have a darker, very tempting side somewhere hidden that was ignored for example in Rousseau’s theory in his Social Contract ?

The next chapter will show some of the major connotations nature has in the novel of Frankenstein, followed of course by a chapter on civilization with a small account of the status of women in the 18th century society and a few feministic interpretations concerning Mary Shelley’s novel. The fourth chapter will deal with some of the many different influences which Mary Shelley wove into her story, the fifth and sixth with the most important theories on ‘nature and civilization’ and some of the references Shelley made concerning the Bible and the complicated consequences if one attempts to create a living being by artificial means. This is then followed by my conclusion.

2. Nature

2.1 Nature And Science

The reason for the existence of science is nature. Mother Nature is an area that still withholds many of its secrets from the grasp of mankind, so humans had to develop the scientific branches to be able to still their innate curiosity to search for more knowledge.

This doesn’t mean that nature is cherished by scientists for the many possibilities she opened to them by her ‘wisdom’. Victor Frankenstein’s mentor Waldman says in his introduction lecture:

‘The modern masters (…) penetrate into the recesses of nature and show how she works in her hiding-places. They ascend into the heavens (…). They have acquired new and almost unlimited powers; they can command the thunders of heaven, mimic the earthquake, and even mock the invisible world with its own shadows’. (Shelley, 46)

Compared to the secrets nature still has not revealed, these words seem very arrogant, especially since the imitations the scientists can master won’t ever be like their originals in nature. The words Waldman chose, “show how she works in her hiding-places”, also sound like a violation of nature, because a hiding-place is one’s most private retreat, where you have the most private possessions and secrets and where you most definitely don’t want to be disturbed by anyone (Mellor, 122). Victor Frankenstein also chose words similar to them when describing his working on the being: “I pursued nature to her hiding-places” (Shelley, 52). Furthermore, these “almost unlimited powers” Waldman speaks about can be seen as an indication of what Victor attempts to achieve later on, for he tries to break through the practically final border dividing mankind from having unlimited powers, from being like God.

Additionally, the final reason that leads to the disastrous enterprise of Victor was his superstitious attitude towards nature. The more Victor studies, the more his arrogance increases and his respect towards nature lessens. He has studied the different fields of science for a few years and already thinks that he could discover the secrets of life and death, an undertaking in which humankind has been engaged for centuries (Shelley, 49). He seems to engage himself in this new idea without thinking of the consequences. His first justification of his intentions is “With how many things are we upon the brink of becoming acquainted, if cowardice or carelessness did not restrain our enquiries” (Shelley, 49). It sounds as if he just does not want to be regarded as a coward and therefore has to try this risky experiment, regardless of its influences on nature and its consequences.

2.2 Themes Of Nature Throughout The Novel

The importance that Shelley places on nature throughout the story is obvious. One significant task of nature is to underline the emotional state of mind of the characters. When Victor has recovered from his illness that befell him shortly after the ‘birth’ of his creation, he has re-learned by the help of Clerval to be happy again and to have social intercourse with other students. The “serene sky and verdant fields filled [him] with ecstasy”(Shelley, 67). Furthermore, during his and Elizabeth’s ‘honeymoon’, he “enjoyed the feeling of happiness”. Accordingly, the “sun was hot”, and they “enjoyed the beauty of the scene” (Shelley, 186). In the evening, when they touched the shore, “the soft air just ruffled the water and caused a pleasant motion among the trees as we approached the shore, from which it wafted the most delightful scent of flowers and hay” (Shelley, 187). In addition, when Victor’s creation travels towards Geneva, he “dare[s] to be happy” and let the day “cheer (…) [him] by the loveliness of its sunshine and the balminess of the air” (Shelley, 135).

Nature is not so cheerful for the major part of the novel, however. One of the main themes of the story concerning nature is ice and snow. It begins at the very start of the novel, with the letters Walton writes to his sister. He is about to embark on a mission towards the arctic, and writes his experiences and feelings in his messages. Those letters reveal, apart from his first joyful anticipation at the prospect of discovering a new region of the world (Shelley, 19 f.), which later turns then into despair and disappointment (Shelley, 208), fear and uncertainty of the great power and the many secrets the arctic has (Shelley, 205). Here, nature takes on a sublime character, which meant for the eighteenth century philosophers the meeting between the human mind and a great, unknowable and potentially dangerous nature (Mellor, 131). The sublime attribute is the male part of nature, according to Isaac Kramnick’s interpretation of Burke, while the beautiful appearances of nature are the female part (Mellor, 139).

The theme of ice is very important concerning Victor Frankenstein’s creation as well. The seasons of autumn and winter are the first he experiences in his life, since he was ‘born’ in “a dreary night of November” (Shelley, 55). Therefore, in addition to the “dismal and wet [morning]” (Shelley, 57) right after his ‘birth’, coldness was one of the very first impressions he gets from his surroundings, for “it was dark when [he] awoke; [he] felt cold also, and half frightened” (Shelley, 98) after his first night outside in the woods. This uncomfortable feeling associated with ice and snow accompanies him throughout the whole novel, for his “chief delights were the sight of the flowers, the birds, and all the gay apparel of summer” (Shelley, 101) and he thought the appearance of snow “disconsolate” and felt “chilled” (Shelley, 101). His spirits, which were quite high throughout the summer he spent at his hovel in the neighbourhood of the DeLacey’s, fall as soon as he realizes that autumn and winter are about to set in again (Shelley, 127). However, since snow and ice are uncomfortable and ‘sublime’ to ordinary humans like Victor as well, the snow-covered Alps and later the deserted lands of the Arctic soon represent a kind of ally for him. His artificial body has greater resistance to coldness and so nobody can live or follow him into the caves and dens of the mighty Alps (Shelley, 193). In order to flee from encounters with humans, he has to turn to the kind of nature he dislikes the most. It is in ice and snow as well where he has his last appearance in the novel, and where he is likely to have met his death (Shelley, 215).


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Nature and Civilisation in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
University of Bayreuth
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Nature, Civilisation, Mary, Shelley, Frankenstein, Proseminar
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Nadine Wolf (Author), 2004, Nature and Civilisation in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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